Wooden Shjips ride waves of blogoscopic acclaim with lo-fi psychedelia
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Let's face it: half the kick of discovering a little-known noodler or late-night four-tracker lies in the shock of the unknown. Jaded ears perk up at the sound of some never-was untouched by time, history, or, hell, pop itself after all, musical obscuros like High Speed and the Afflicted Man, one of Wooden Shjips guitarist Ripley Johnson's favorites, were far from popular.
Wooden Shjips itself give or take that copycat culturejamming "j" might have easily slipped past notice. I first heard their 2005 three-song 10-inch, Shrinking Moon for You, by chance when Holy Mountain honcho John Whitson spun the disc at Hemlock Tavern the ears pricked up to a dusty, droning cluster of fuzz, the hips jiggled along with those sleigh bells until the second guitar shrieked to the foreground. Hark, the groovy in extremis, raw '60s-style teenage-riot drama of the Velvets or Spaceman 3. I was told it was a single by a local band that was giving away its searing psych stomp to anyone who e-mailed for a copy. I seem to remember dutifully firing off a message later. No response.
No wonder Johnson ran through the original 300-copy pressing of Shrinking Moon after raves from music sites and blogs such as Dusted and Siltblog and the random high-five by Byron Coley in Wire. The next Wooden Shjips recording, the 2006 7-inch "Dance, California"/"Clouds over Earthquake," garnered further positivity, completely spoiling Johnson's original plan of a worldwide free musical giveaway a goodwill crusade of vinyl shareware, if you will, that embraced its own mystery.
"It became a little tricky once people started writing about it, like on blogs and stuff," Johnson said last week, chilling on a chilly SF evening with bassist Dusty Jermier in Eagle Tavern's beer garden. "Then record stores wanted to carry it, but if it's free, you can't really sell it to them, and they wouldn't take it for free."
Most artists should be so unlucky. But Johnson explained, "It was important to be consistent. Since no one knew the band, there was no way to sell them, so the initial idea was to just give them away, and if I couldn't give them away, I actually had a plan to leave them on bus seats and in libraries. It didn't work out that I had to do that.
"I mean, the one thing I didn't want to end up with was a box of records that just sat in my closet, because I've been there before."
But it is fun for the treasure-trawling music collector geeking out on the thrill of discovery, which Johnson can relate to. "I think the other big inspiration was from private press records from the '60s and '70s people who'd make their own record, maybe 100 copies, and it would be forgotten, and then 30 years later people would discover it and decide it was the greatest record they'd ever heard," he said, citing High Speed and George Brigman on San Francisco's Anopheles Records as inspirations. "Just press the record, make music why wait? Why do you need a label? Why do you need people to like you to make a record? You can just make it, and if people don't like it, maybe they'll like it in 20 years."
Instead, "there was a lot of going down to the post office every day and mailing out records, which is really fun to a certain degree," he continued. "It's cool to be contacted by people all over the world." They'd PayPal him shipping and extra money to coax him to send his single as far afield as New Zealand, Japan, and Lebanon. All of which has led to a forthcoming full-length for Holy Mountain, singles for Sub Pop and France's Pollymaggoo imprint, and shows at South by Southwest after Wooden Shjips play their first show at Cafe du Nord on Jan. 15.
"We're actually having goals thrust upon us," said Johnson, a Wallingford, Conn., native who works as a systems administrator at CNET. "We're sort of drowning in goals at this point a lot of offers to put out records, show offers."
It's a radical change from Johnson's last, late '90s band, Botulism. "We would pretty much clear rooms," he recalled. The first "iteration" of Wooden Shjips, which began a few years ago, consisted of nonmusicians. Johnson wanted bandmates who would bring the willingness to learn but leave the ego at home. "Musicians are a pain in the ass," said the grinning guitarist, who confesses he did want to "dictate a little bit." Unfortunately, nonmusicians also didn't often come with the dedication. "In fact, in the first version our drummer quit because we started talking about playing shows," Johnson added, chuckling.
Making music white label or no continues to be the focus: Johnson, Jermier, "nonmusician" keyboardist Nash Whalen, and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin have already begun recording on a creaky eight-track reel-to-reel in the SoMa practice space they share with the Fucking Champs. And perhaps Johnson will find use for the box of Botulism singles he has in his closet, selling them as Wooden Shjips juvenilia. "I'd rather just revert to the old plan and put them on bus seats or in the library," he said with a smile, "and see if people discover them on their own." *
Mon/15, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF